Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Strange Tale of Domestic Entanglements

The term "yellow journalism" was coined in the 1890s to describe the sensationalist journalism that characterized the newspaper circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The name came from the fact that the publishers used a certain amount of yellow ink. Actually, though, Pulitzer had been using sensational headlines to sell papers for many years. His St. Louis Post-Dispatch became the dominant newspaper in Missouri during the 1880s, partly because of its sensational headlines. Even the Post-Dispatch, however, could not hold a candle to the Sedalia Bazoo when it came to sensationalism.
I've mentioned the Bazoo on this blog before. Perhaps I'm drawn to it because I like a little sensationalism myself. I admit that I enjoy researching and writing about murder cases and other sensational topics, and the Sedalia Bazoo provides fertile ground for researching such topics. The murder of Maggie Fischer on Friday night, January 25, 1889, six miles northeast of Sedalia near Beaman Station (now called Beaman) is another case in point. The Bazoo was one of the few newspapers in Missouri or elsewhere to even report the event, but the Bazoo made a major story out of it.
The headlines in the Bazoo a few days after the crime read: Murder and Mystery--Mrs. Maggie Fischer Strangled to Death at Her Own Door--Suspicion Points to Her Husband and Sister as the Murderers--A Strange Tale of Domestic Entanglements and Jealousies--An Affectionate Young Wife the Victim of a Barbarous Crime.
The loud ringing of a farm bell on the Fischer farm about one o'clock on the morning of January 26 first alerted neighbors that something was wrong. When the first neighbors responded to the alarm, they found Milton Fischer bending over his wife's body, which lay on a bed in the front room, and wringing his hands in apparent agony. The corpse was soaked in camphor and water, and strewn about the room were bottles and other vessels containing these liquids. Maggie's sister, Louise Swearingen, who had been staying at the home, was pacing the floor, also in apparent agony.
Fisher's story was that he had left Sedalia by wagon on Friday evening about eight o'clock and had arrived home about ten o'clock. After putting away his team, he approached his house and stumbled over his wife's body lying motionless on the back porch near the kitchen door. Wrapped tightly around the woman's neck was a silk and cotton handkerchief with which she had apparently been strangled.
Louise Swearingen said she and her sister had gone to bed on Friday evening about eight o'clock but had not yet fallen asleep when a loud rap came at the back door. Maggie got up and went to the door with Louise following some distance behind. When Maggie opened the door, she began screaming and fighting as she was dragged outside. Terrified, Louise quickly retreated and locked herself, along with her child and Maggie's child, in the front room. She was afraid to go outside until after Milton Fischer came home and discovered his wife's body, and then she and Fischer had carried her sister into the front room and tried in every way possible to revive her. They did not summon help until all hope was lost, which accounted for why the alarm had not been given sooner.
At the coroner's inquiry held later the same day (Saturday), however, some "very sensational testimony was given," according to the Bazoo, which cast doubt on Milton and Louise's story. Jurors learned that Louise Swearningen had been staying in her sister's home for the past few weeks and had also lived with Maggie and Milton for about three months the previous summer. Louise slept in the same room with her sister and brother-in-law and continued to sleep in the same room with Milton even when Maggie left to visit her parents for a month and Louise stayed on to keep house for Milton. Witnesses could not say for sure whether Louise and Milton slept in the same bed during this time, but a woman who did Maggie's washing for her testified that there was a jealousy between the two sisters and that Maggie had told her, "If things do not change soon, I will not be able to live here much longer." The washerwoman added that one source of conflict between the two sisters was that Maggie thought her husband treated Louise's bastard child better than he treated his own.
The Bazoo added that Louise Swearingen, who was a few years younger than her twenty-six-year-old sister, was a woman of "bad character" who had "not conducted herself in a manner which placed her above suspicion." She was described as being of "very unprepossessing appearance," but nonetheless she had "succeeded in fascinating her brother-in-law in some way" and had become "very intimate" with him.
The coroner's jurors concluded there was enough evidence to hold both Milton Fischer and Louise Swearingen for the murder of Maggie Fischer, and the pair were placed in jail at Sedalia. They pleaded not guilty at their arraignment on Monday and were then returned to the jail to await a preliminary hearing the following week.
The key piece of evidence in the legal proceedings that followed proved to be the handkerchief with which Mrs. Fischer was strangled. Milton Fischer testified that he had never seen it before discovering it around his wife's neck on the night she was murdered, but other witnesses testified that Fischer himself had purchased it in Sedalia not long before the crime. Fischer was eventually convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years in the state prison. He was committed to the Jeff City prison in April 1890 and was pardoned by the Missouri governor after serving ten years. Miss Swearingen was charged as an accessory in the crime, but I have been unable to find any record that she was ever convicted. So, apparently she was not.


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